Singer, songwriter, and rock 'n' roll legend Roy Kelton Orbison was born April 23, 1936 in Vernon, Texas, to Orbie Lee and Nadine Orbison.
The family soon moved to the small West Texas oil town of Wink. There, at age six, Roy learned to play the guitar from his father. He began performing at school and on the radio as a young man. In high school he formed a band called the Wink Westerners. While attending North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas), Roy turned his country band into a rock 'n' roll band called the Teen Kings.
Completing only two years of college, Roy dropped out and devoted himself to building the band's popularity throughout West Texas. Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee soon took notice, and Roy recorded his first hit, "Ooby Dooby," for Sun in 1956.
Despite that initial hit, Roy had less chart success than his Sun contemporaries, including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Teen Kings disbanded and Roy left Sun to join Monument, a Nashville label, in 1959. A year earlier, the Everly Brothers had recorded one of his songs, "Claudette" (named for his first wife), which became a hit.
It was with Monument during the '60s that Orbison wrote and recorded his greatest hits. All now rock 'n' roll classics, they include "Only the Lonely" (1960), "Blue Angel" (1960), "Running Scared" (1961), "Blue Bayou" (1963), "It's Over" (1964), and "Oh Pretty Woman" (1964).
Elvis Presley called Orbison "the greatest singer in the world." In 1963, Roy headlined a concert in England with an opening act made up of four of his biggest young fans, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. They would soon be known to the world as the Beatles.
At the height of his fame in 1966, Roy's wife, Claudette, died in a motorcycle accident. Two years later two of his three sons died when his Nashville home caught fire. Roy married again in 1969 and had two more sons.
In 1979, Orbison had heart surgery. He had continued to tour despite a downturn in popularity during the '70s. In the late '70s and throughout the '80s, Roy's career had a resurgence when Linda Ronstadt and Van Halen released covers of his songs, and Roy released new recordings of his classics.
In 1980, he recorded a duet, "That Loving You Feeling Again," with Emylou Harris, which won a Grammy. In 1987, the movie "Blue Velvet" included his hit, "In Dreams," on its soundtrack. That same year, Roy was also inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. The next year, he taped a television tribute to his music, performing with many his fellow rock legends and fans. He also released an album, The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One, with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, which became a top ten hit.
It was during this renewed success and interest in his talent that Orbison died of a heart attack the night of December 6, 1988.
Bibliography: Ron Tyler, ed., The New Handbook of Texas, Vol. 4 (Austin, Texas: Texas State Historical Association, 1996) pp. 1164-65.